On March 4, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R), President Obama visited Miami Central High School in Miami, Florida, to talk about turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools.
“Right now, there are about 2,000 high schools in America—about 12 percent of the total number of high schools in America—that produce nearly half of the young people who drop out of school,” Obama said. “And we know these schools are often found in rural areas or in big cities like Miami. Many of these schools have lots of Haitian Americans and African Americans, Latino and other minority students.”
As recently as a few years ago, Miami Central High School was in danger of closing because it scored an ‘F’ on the state exams for five years in a row. “Halls were literally littered with garbage. One of the buildings here was called the Fish Bowl because it was always flooded,” Obama said. “In one survey, only a third of all students said they felt safe at school.”
In the last five years, however, the school’s math scores have risen more than 60 percent while its math scores have increased by 40 percent. Graduation rates rose from 36 percent to 63 percent, Obama said.
“I expect [graduation rates] to be at 100 percent,” Obama said. “You can’t drop out. You can’t even think about dropping out. But it’s not going to be enough just to graduate from high school. You’re going to need some additional education.”
In his introductory remarks, Bush explained some of the reforms that went into the turnaround seen in Florida’s schools. “Because of Florida’s system of high expectations for students, a command focus on reading, accountability for schools, rigorous college prep courses, and the broadest array of choices for families, Florida students are above the national average now in reading and math and more students are graduating than ever before,” he said, adding that there’s “a lot more to do.”
In an op-ed in the Miami Herald timed to coincide with the president’s visit, Duncan talked specifically about the changes that Miami Central High School underwent. “Working with the school district and teachers union, Central promoted a strong school leader to be principal and replaced more than half the staff,” he wrote. “It extended learning time after-school and during the summer, and engaged the community by offering Parent Academy classes for parents on graduation requirements and financial literacy. More than 80 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch. Yet academic performance is steadily improving—and students and teachers are showing that a committed school can beat the demographic odds.”
Duncan explained that the federal government will provide roughly $4 billion over the next five years through the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program to help turn around the nation’s five thousand lowest-performing schools, including the nation’s two thousand lowest-performing high schools, which, Duncan said, have been “historically ineligible” for the SIG program. He said that the redesigned SIG program will provide up to $6 million for each school targeted for turnaround over a period of three years.